Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Rump (2013)

Rump: The True Story of Rumpelstiltskin. 2013. Random House. 272 pages. [Source: Review copy]

What a fun book! I really, really enjoyed Liesl Shurtliff's Rump which boasts of being, of course, the TRUE story of Rumpelstiltskin. From page one, Rump makes a delightful hero in this middle grade fantasy. Here's the first paragraph: "My mother named me after a cow's rear end. It's the favorite village joke, and probably the only one, but it's not really true. At least I don't think it's true, and neither does Gran. Really, my mother had another name for me, a wonderful name, but no one ever heard it. They only heard the first part. The worst part." Rump lives in a world where your NAME leads to your destiny, so, you can imagine that Rump struggles with what destiny has in store for him since it "blessed" him with a name like that. Rump is NOT friendless, however. His two biggest supporters are his Gran, who has raised him from his birth, and Red, his best friend and sidekick who has a Granny of her own in the forest. The situation is relatively bleak when the novel opens. Rump lives in a poor community that is easily oppressed by the king. The local miller dispenses food to the community based on how much gold the person (family) has contributed. So hunger is a part of life for many. One day, however, Rump discovers something in his Gran's woodpile: his mother's spinning wheel. His Gran is NOT pleased that Rump wants to keep it, to learn to use it. Rump gives it a try, and, he discovers the magic within. Yes, he learns he has the magic inside him to spin straw into gold. But what does NOT come naturally is the wisdom on when to use and when NOT to use magic. He has NOT learned that all magic comes with a price. That his oh-so-delightful talent might come with a big, big price that he won't want to pay.

I love this one. I do. I love the narration. I love the storytelling. I love how the story was adapted and changed. I loved that magic had consequences. I loved seeing Rump grow and mature into Rumpelstiltskin.
© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews


Tuesday, April 22, 2014

When Christ And His Saints Slept (1994)

When Christ and His Saints Slept by Sharon Kay Penman. 1994. Random House. 746 pages. [Source: Bought]

I've been meaning to read more of Sharon Kay Penman's work for years now. When Christ and His Saints Slept is set in the twelfth century. It begins with the tragic sailing of The White Ship and ends with Henry II ready to be crowned king of England. For readers who like numbers, that would be 1120-1154. It covers the later part of Henry I's reign: his grief and desperation over the loss of his son and heir, his wanting his daughter, Maude, to be his successor; it covers the war--which lasted over ten years--between Stephen and Maude for the crown of England. Readers also get a chance to see Maude's son, Henry, grow up to become "Henry II."

It is a novel with many strengths. One of its greatest strengths, perhaps, is in the wide range of characters or narrators. Stephen and Matilda, on one side, Maude and Geoffrey, on the other. Readers meet the men (and women) who supported Maude, including many of Henry I's illegitimate sons. Readers meet the men (and women) who supported Stephen's claim to the throne. If there is a point to When Christ and His Saints Slept, it is this: war is ugly and cruel and pointless. Readers see Stephen and his supporters--his army--do horribly cruel things in the name of war. Readers see Maude's army do some equally horrid things. One side is not holier than the other. While neither army was as cruel as they possibly could be all the time, without ceasing, year after year, the truth was that England suffered greatly during this tug of war. The truth was very few cared WHO ruled England, so long as England was ruled peaceably and practically. The burning. The stealing and looting. The raping. The killing. The holding of hostages. England was in a BIG BIG mess if this was the best either side could manage.

If the novel has one hero, one "main" character, it would be Ranulf. Ranulf is a fictional illegitimate son of Henry I. It is not a stretch to fit him in historically since Henry I recognized over twenty such sons! Ranulf along with Robert and Gilbert and Miles and Brien, and countless others supported Maude and her claim to the throne. While the novel does focus on the battles, the war, the political mess--it also gives a personal side to the time period. Readers see Ranulf grow up a bit, fall in love, make mistakes, find true love, and settle down to marry and raise his own family.

If the novel is allowed to have more than one hero, well, an obvious choice to me is Henry II. The book covers his teenage years: 14 to 19. The last third of the novel truly focuses on Henry, on his relationship with his parents, with his relationship with Eleanor of Aquitaine. Those last few chapters are far from clean.

I loved how many characters we get to meet and know. I loved that we get to know men AND women from the time period, most of them historical figures, though not all. I loved that readers get introduced to real history. Penman's pacing was wonderful, I felt!

For readers who ENJOY history, When Christ and His Saints Slept is easy to recommend. She gives you enough context so that you're not lost (or at least not lost past all hope!) but it never weighed the text down in my opinion. I admit that "being lost" in a history book is all a subjective matter based on what one does or doesn't know heading into a book, but, I thought she did a good balancing job.

And so began for the wretched people of England, a time of suffering so great that they came to fear "Christ and his saints slept." (171)
If ever there was a woman unable to learn from her mistakes, it was this one for certes. No more than Stephen could. If the Lord God plucked him out of his Bristol prison on the morrow and restored him to power at Westminster, nothing would change. He'd still go on forgiving men he ought to hang, promising more than he could deliver, failing to keep the King's Peace. Maude and Stephen, a match made in Hell. What was it Geoffrey de Mandeville had once said--a lifetime ago? Ah, yes, that Maude would listen to no one and Stephen to anyone. Had there ever, he wondered, been a war like this? Was there a single soul--not related to them by blood or marriage--who truly wanted to see either one of them on England's throne? (281)
"I am truly glad to have you safe, Robert. But tonight I feel as if... as if we'd struggled and panted and clawed our way up a mountain, only to stumble just as we neared the summit and fall all the way down, landing in a bloodied, bruised heap at the bottom. What in God's Name do we do now?"
"I suppose," he said, "we start climbing again."
"How many of our men will have the heart for it?" Rising, she began to pace, "To come so close and then to have it all snatched away like is so unfair, Robert, so damnably unfair!"
"Life is unfair," he said, sounding so stoical, so rational, and so dispassionate that she was suddenly angry, a scalding, seething, impotent rage that spared no one--not herself, not Robert, not God.
"You think I don't know that? When has life ever been fair to women? Just think upon how easy it was for Stephen to steal my crown, and how bitter and bloody has been my struggle to win it back. Even after we'd caged Stephen at Bristol Castle, he was still a rival, still a threat...and why? Because he was so much braver or more clever or capable than me? No...because I was a woman, for it always came back to that. I'll not deny that I made mistakes, but you do not know what it is like, Robert, to be judged so unfairly, to be rejected not for what you've done but for what you are. It is a poison that seeps into the soul, that makes you half crazed with the need to prove yourself..."
She stopped to catch her breath, and only then did she see the look on Robert's face, one of disbelief and then utter and overwhelming fury, burning as hot as her own anger, hotter even, for being so long suppressed.
"I do not know what it is like?" he said incredulously. "I was our father's firstborn son, but was I his heir? No, I was just his bastard. He trusted me and relied upon me and needed me. But none of that mattered, not even after the White Ship sank and he lost his only lawfully begotten son. He was so desperate to have an heir of his body that he dragged you back--unwilling--from Germany, forced you into a marriage that he knew was doomed, and then risked rebellion by ramming you down the throats of his barons. And all the while, he had a son capable of ruling after him--he had me! But I was the son born of his sin, so I was not worthy to be king. As if I could have blundered any worse than you or Stephen!"Maude was stunned. She stared at him, too stricken for words, not knowing what to say even if she'd been capable of speech. Robert seemed equally shattered by his outburst: his face was suddenly ashen. He started to speak, then turned abruptly and walked out. (343-44).
© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews


Monday, April 21, 2014

Meet Me in St. Louis (2004)

Meet Me in St. Louis: A Trip to the 1904 World's Fair. Robert Jackson. 2004. HarperCollins. 144 pages. [Source: Bought]

Meet Me in St. Louis is a fascinating book about the 1904 World's Fair. I found this nonfiction book for young readers to be entertaining and wonderful from cover to cover. It was well-organized. The narration was great--never a dull moment. It was detailed. If you love discovering "I didn't know that?!" facts, this is one to treasure. I found myself wanting to find people to enlighten. I learned so much from reading it.

Chapter one is a direct appeal to readers. Jackson writes in second person. He wants YOU to join him at the fair. This chapter gives a brief overview of the fair, inviting you to "experience" it through your five senses.
"The giant wheel lurches into motion; you hold your breath and feel yourself moving. How is it possible for such a large car, stuffed to the gills with sixty people, to rise into the air like this? You bravely take a first peek out the windows. Off to the near right, you spot the Abraham Lincoln Exhibit, which houses the actual log cabin where Lincoln lived as a child in Kentucky. Then the rolling gardens and peaceful ponds of the Japanese Pavilion opens up in front of you. A bit higher and you can see all of the Jerusalem Exhibit, a miniature version of that Middle Eastern city filled with replicas of ancient buildings. Can this be St. Louis, or have you been transported to a whole new world?" (10)
Chapter two chronicles the preparation and construction.
Chapter three tells of opening day.

Chapters four and five tells of buildings and exhibits. It tells about each of the palaces at the World's Fair. There was, for example, the palace of mines and metallurgy, palace of varied industries, palace of education and social economy, palace of fine arts, palace of liberal arts, palace of manufactures, palace of transportation, palace of electricity and machinery, palace of agriculture, palace of horticulture, palace of forestry, fish, and game. One of my favorite places to read about was the Model Playground.

Chapter six is a great for capturing the unique entertainments. It focuses on "the Illusions on the Pike." Jackson writes,
 "Plays, concerts, circus tricks--more than forty different shows were staged in all, some in theaters and others right in the center of the wide walkway. Fifteen hundred animals, from zebras to polar bears, lived on the Pike during the fair, and many of them were entertaining performers too. Without a doubt, the Pike was the loudest area on the fairgrounds. Dozens of men called "spielers" or "barkers" shouted into megaphones for hours, trying to attract people to rides and shows." (73) This chapter also mentions Geronimo. "He signed autographs for ten cents each; depending on his mood, the price for his photograph ranged between fifty cents and two dollars. Geronimo would even sell his hat for the wildly expensive price of five dollars--then coolly pull a new one from under the table, place it on his head, and wait for another buyer." (83)
Chapter seven focuses on the debut of the Ferris Wheel, or "Observation Wheel."

Chapter eight is titled, "Faces of the Fair." I thought this was a well done chapter that examines, with honesty, the diversity of the Fair; in many places, it addresses racism and exploitation. The fair, as we've read so far, may have been educational, and it may have been FUN, but, it wasn't always fair and just.
"While blacks were not the only minority group treated with disrespect, at least they were free to boycott the fair if they wanted. Others were not able to protest. Several ethnic groups had been brought from their homelands to St. Louis--in some cases by force. Men, women, and children were put on display so that fairgoers could take a first-hand look at them and, in theory, learn about their cultures. The largest of these "anthropological" exhibits came from the Philippines. Hundreds of exploited Filipinos lived on the fairgrounds in open huts and flimsy thatched cabins. Cramped and filthy, the housing offered almost no privacy. The Filipinos were forced by fair managers to sit quietly while crowds of curious visitors gawked at them; they were also told to sing, dance, and perform other activities against their will. Instead of learning about the Filipinos and gaining respect for this culture, most fairgoers concluded they were a primitive race of inferior beings." (100)
And later from the same chapter,
 "Some people were disturbed by the exploitation of ethnic groups, including a magazine reporter named Laura Ingalls Wilder. Long before the Little House on the Prairie books made her a well-known children's author, she traveled from her home in southern Missouri to write about the fair. Wilder enjoyed the palaces, foreign buildings, and the Pike, but she was appalled by the mistreatment of many of the foreign and Native American people. She reportedly even tried to stop exhibitors from forcing them on display. One day, a young man from Africa was being exploited during a typically cruel stage show. Wilder stood up in the middle of the audience and demanded that the show stop immediately." (103-4)
Chapter nine is about "special events." The chapter covers many such events. But the BEST, BEST, BEST part of this chapter is devoted to the 1904 Olympic Games in St. Louis!!! There were a dozen little things that I found fascinating in this section. At least a dozen!
"Because the Games were fairly new--and therefore disorganized--many bizarre and amusing things happened. After a disagreement over who won the fifty-meter race, two swimmers got into a brawl and just agreed to race again. There was no such thing as instant replay in 1904, of course. And American gymnast George Eyser ambled off with five medals, including two golds, after competing with a wooden leg. He had lost one leg after being run over by a train years earlier." (114) 
 "A pair of Zulu tribesmen, Len Taunyane and Jan Mashiani, became the first African athletes to compete in the Olympics, even though they were supposed to be part of the Boer War Exhibit. Taunyane might have won, but a fierce dog chased him nearly a mile off course, and he finished in ninth place." (116)
Chapter ten focuses on the last days of the fair.

I would definitely recommend this one!!

© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews


Sunday, April 20, 2014

Phineas Redux (1874)

Phineas Redux. Anthony Trollope. 1874. 768 pages. [Source: Book I bought]

Phineas Redux is the fourth in the Palliser series by Anthony Trollope. Previous titles include Can You Forgive Her?, Phineas Finn, and The Eustace Diamonds.

It has been a few years since Phineas Finn left the joys and sorrows of political life to settle down and marry. (For the record, he didn't really have much of a choice in giving up the politics). But now his luck, for better or worse, is changing. His wife has conveniently died, and there is a new opportunity for him to run for a seat in parliament. He's hesitant but as always ambitious. He leaps for it knowing that he could easily regret it.

It has also been a few years since Lady Laura has left her husband, Robert Kennedy, whom she detests. She is still very obsessed with Phineas Finn. She loves him dearly, she makes him--in her own mind--her everything. Phineas Finn, on the other hand, remembers her kindly but rarely. She is NOT his everything: she hasn't been since she turned down his proposal all those years again. He would never--could never--think of her like that again. He respects her, but, he's content to keep his distance. Her confessions to him are improper, in a way, and prove embarrassing to him.

Lady Laura is not the only woman who has given away her heart to Phineas. Madame Max Goesler still loves him though she's at least discreet or more discreet. At the very least, she has a life outside her daydreams; her social life is active and she has many good friends. She's not as isolated, so, her love for Phineas perhaps does not come across as obsession.

While I was indifferent to Madame Max in Phineas Finn, I grew to really like her in Phineas Redux. Other female characters I enjoyed were Lady Chiltern (whom we first met in Phineas Finn as Violet Effingham), Lady Glencora (whom we first met in Can We Forgive Her?), and Lizzie Eustace (whom we first met in Eustace Diamonds). It was interesting to me to see which heroines Trollope allowed a happily ever after. I was so very pleased to see Lord and Lady Chiltern settling down quite happily. It was LOVELY to spend time with both of them. I still adore Lady Glenora and Plantagenet Palliser together. Lizzie reaps what she sows, but is fortunate in many ways!

There was a new romance introduced in Phineas Redux. Two men are in love with Adelaide Palliser: Gerard Maule and Thomas Platter Spooner. Adelaide, of course, has her favorite. But the other is very persistent. 

In terms of plot: A MURDER. A politician is murdered. There are two suspects. One suspect is Phineas Finn. He is put on trial for the crime...but the evidence is all circumstantial. Will he be convicted? Will doubt and uncertainty of his guilt prevent him from politics in the future? 

© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews


Saturday, April 19, 2014

Library Loot: Third Trip in April

New Loot:
  • Lost in Shangri-La by Mitchell Zuckhoff
  • Kinfolk by Pearl S. Buck
  • The Living Reed by Pearl S. Buck
  • East Wind, West Wind by Pearl S. Buck
Leftover Loot:
  • Richard Scarry's Best Nursery Tales Ever by Richard Scarry
  • English German Girl by Jake Wallis Simons
  • Mommy & Me Craft (DK)
  • Mommy & Me Start Cooking (DK) 
  • The Diary of A Young Girl: The Definitive Edition by Anne Frank, edited by Otto H. Frank and Mirjam Pressler; translated by Susan Massotty.
  • How The Beatles Changed the World by Martin W. Sandler
Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Linda from Silly Little Mischief that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write up your post-feel free to steal the button-and link it using the Mr. Linky any time during the week. And of course check out what other participants are getting from their libraries.

© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews


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